Athelstan, King Ecbert and Ragnar Lothbrok were in one of TV’s most tense-filled bromance triangles and given that Ragnar and Ecbert were already frenemies their disagreements were sooner or later going to be solved by swords. Athelstan was the priest with a crisis of faith so bad he got crucified for it and King Ecbert is the one who saved him from certain death. Ragnar on the other hand yanked Athelstan out of his peaceful monastery and possibly created the first recorded case of Stockholm syndrome. Athelstan went on to provide both Ragnar and Ecbert with advice as they rule.
Both men obviously liked Athelstan because of his intellect; he’s someone they could hang out with in the sea of ignorance. Ragnar is after all the farmer who surpassed his earl and usurped him eventually becoming king. Within the Vikings Ragnar lacks an intellectual equal, his brother’s prowess starts and ends at the battlefield, when not raping slaves or making passes at his brother’s wife Rollo wallows in alcohol and self pity. Floki is great if Ragnar is looking for someone to have a beer with but obviously he thinks about more complex matters. Intellectual debates are something sorely lacking in the Viking community and their spiritual advisor is clearly not the cult of personality. Compared to Athelstan who already bedded Ecbert’s daughter-in-law the Vikings are quite behind in terms of cultural development.
Athelstan was also a strategic asset given his knowledge in Latin and foreign places. For Ecbert Athelstan was the one who could have got him into the Northmen’s homes with little effort. For Ragnar he would have been an irreplaceable guide as they moved West. Another thing that should be remembered is that Ragnar originally did not intend to be king, circumstances forced it. For Ragnar, Athelstan was the only one he could be free with given his dedication to a different way of life without desire for power. How much did Ragnar care for Athelstan? Given his reaction upon hearing of Athelstan’s death it could be said a lot. However he did not care enough to not raid Paris. Had Athelstan been alive would Ragnar have got into France the way he did and killed the priest? Maybe, but with Athelstan there he might not even have had to resort to such measures. On the flip-side Ecbert knew how much Athelstan cared for the Vikings and Ragnar. Had Athelstan stayed would he have allowed the slaughter of the settlement knowing that he might have to kill Athelstan too in order to silence him?
To really break the tie we’d have to look at who treats the people they love better. King Ecbert ruler of Wessex doesn’t mind his son being cuckolded by Athelstan. It could be his love for Athelstan it could be that he is incapable of loving anyone including his son. Ragnar in contrast loves his son trusts him with his tactics and even invited Athelstan to a threesome with Lagerther. When Ecbert hears of how his son killed the Vikings in the new settlement he’s overjoyed and begins the celebrations with his son. Considering that Ecbert had shown/feigned interest in Lagerther it’s hard to say that Ecbert cares for anyone but himself. Ragnar loves his friends and family and at least it’s been established he values them above all else even Rollo. Both might have exploited Athelstan’s knowledge for their own gain but without a doubt Ragnar is the more humane of the two and cared more for Athelstan. His death might not even move king Ecbert the way it did Ragnar.